We’re all just half-angels

Angle, Devil or what? (copyright by kcmckell on flickr)

Researching public health politics in Africa in the daytime and re-reading Tortilla Flats by Steinbeck at night. And both point from different directions toward my most difficult challenge in trying to understand the world: We are all just half-angels. Most of us want to be good people, or to at least think of ourselves as good people. And we have selfish needs and wants and evil impulses as well. The characters in Tortilla Flats are all charming drinkers who come up with the most twisted arguments for making their selfish behavior sound like they are doing the other person a favor: Everybody knows that money doesn’t make you happy and separates you from your poorer friends, so by not paying rent to their friend Danny they actually save him from this sad and lonely fate…

Now what do these guys have in common with health workers and advocates in Africa? Not much from the first look of it, because the outside observer can easily come to the conclusion that Danny’s friends are the bad people while people who dedicate their lives to health care in Africa must be angels. Steinbeck writes most of his novel from the perspective inside different people’s heads, so you can see how they negotiate their different impulses and how much thought they put into getting what they want AND feeling like good people at the same time. Obviously, it is written in a humorous and exaggerated way. But is it so far from what we all do every day?

When I look back at my first hand experience in and research about health systems in different African countries, I realize that people enter the health professions for a broad mix of reasons, ranging from “saving babies’ lives” to “income”, “power” and “status”. And while most professions carry mixed motivations, in a field like health they are especially obvious, because what you can achieve is so large. Imagine, you can save someone’s live! What a large and gloriously good thing to do. But also: How powerful it makes you, when everyone knows you are the one who can save lives – how tempting to use this power for your own benefit (e.g. by demanding excessive charges or favors). And where there are temptations (call them incentives, if you are an economist), people will give in to them. Not all will give in to the same extent, but very few will completely resist, especially if they know that their behavior will not be sanctioned. At the same time, they will try to keep the self-image of being an ultimately good person. And for many, the result will not be too far from what Danny’s friends do…

But why is this my biggest challenge in understanding the world? Because I love a clear and simple story. I want to be able to have clear feelings and unambiguous answers. My clients like them too, by the way. So I want to be able to say: This system or person is corrupt and not working. And this system or person is not corrupt and working very well. These are the good and these are the bad people, the angels and the devils. But if I delay putting things in boxes labeled “good” and “bad” and instead just allow them to tell me their story and observe what they do, I realize that we are all just half-angels. Yes, I have seen some people with a much larger leaning towards selfless or selfish behavior than others. But another typical character I have met a lot in my research is the powerful person who wears both wings and horns in XXL, the very charismatic, well connected guy (or lady) who achieves far more for “his people” than others in his position would, and, at the same time, lines his pockets with more bribes and favors than anyone else could extract from this position. How am I to think and write about him? What do I recommend? Do we want a smaller person in his position, who achieves less for his people and his own pockets? May we find a full angel, or let’s say a three-quarter one to replace this guy and tilt the scale a bit towards public benefit? Can we change the system, it’s incentives and opportunities in a way that reigns in the selfish behavior better? Or do I just decide, depending on whether I am a cynic or romantic, to close one eye and only see either the wings or the horns and praise or condemn wholeheartedly?

One Response

  1. Reblogged this on The colourful RhYtHm of my life and commented:
    If I delay putting things in boxes labeled “good” and “bad” and instead just allow them to tell me their story and observe what they do, I realize that we are all just half-angels.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: